What does idolatry mean?


By BibleAsk Team

Idolatry, as depicted in the Bible, refers to the act of worshiping or giving reverence to anything other than God. It encompasses not only the physical worship of carved images but also the elevation of material possessions, desires, or ideologies above the Creator. Throughout Scripture, idolatry is presented as a grave offense against God, leading to spiritual decay and divine judgment.

To thoroughly explore the meaning of idolatry, we will examine its biblical definition, investigate its manifestations in various contexts, discuss its theological implications, and consider its relevance in contemporary society. Utilizing references from the Bible, we can gain a comprehensive understanding of this crucial aspect of biblical theology.

Biblical Definition

The foundation of the concept of idolatry is laid out in the Ten Commandments, where God explicitly commands His people to refrain from idolatrous practices:

Exodus 20:3-5 (NKJV): “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.”

Generally, we think of idolatry as bowing down and worshiping idols or statues. And that’s true but there is a broader meaning to the word idolatry. In the King James Version of the Bible, there are three different words translated as “idolatry.” Each one (teraphiym, kateidolos and eidololatria) includes the concept of serving or worshiping something other than God.

Paul defines idolatry saying, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). So, idolatry is not just venerating a statue. Idolatry takes place when we begin to value anything more than we value God (Galatians 5:20).

When God said, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3, NKJV), He wasn’t just talking about the pagan deities that seem so strange to us today. He was talking about  anything  that replaces His place as number one in our hearts. Jesus says, in Matthew 6:33 “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Idolatry is making “all these [material] things” the main object of our search in life, in the vain hope that God will be lenient with us, and, at the close of life’s journey, add to our short life of threescore and ten years the eternal kingdom. But Christ would have us make first things first, and then assures us that all things of lesser importance and value will be given to each according to his need.

Manifestations of Idolatry

1. Worship of False Deities

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry is often depicted as the worship of false gods or idols. Examples include the worship of the golden calf by the Israelites in Exodus 32 and the veneration of Baal and Asherah by the Canaanites.

2. Materialism and Greed

Idolatry can also manifest in the form of materialism and greed, where individuals prioritize wealth, possessions, or worldly success above their relationship with God.

Colossians 3:5 (NKJV): “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” This verse equates covetousness with idolatry, highlighting the danger of placing undue importance on material possessions.

3. Worship of Self

In contemporary contexts, idolatry can take the form of self-worship or the exaltation of personal desires, ambitions, or ideologies above God.

Philippians 3:19 (NKJV): “…whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.” This passage warns against those whose desires and appetites become their gods, leading them away from a life devoted to God.

Theological Implications

1. Violation of God’s Sovereignty

Idolatry constitutes a direct violation of God’s sovereignty and rightful place as the one true God. It challenges His authority over creation and defies His exclusive claim to worship.

Isaiah 42:8 (NKJV): “I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images.” This declaration emphasizes God’s refusal to share His glory or praise with idols, affirming His uniqueness and supremacy.

2. Erosion of Covenant Relationship

Idolatry disrupts the covenant relationship between God and His people, leading to spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness.

Jeremiah 2:5 (NKJV): “Thus says the Lord: ‘What injustice have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me, have followed idols, and have become idolaters?’” In this passage, God laments the unfaithfulness of His people, who have forsaken Him for idols, betraying the covenant established between them.

Consequences of Idolatry

1. Divine Judgment

Idolatry incurs God’s judgment and wrath upon those who practice it, as it defies His commandments and provokes His righteous anger.

Romans 1:24-25 (NKJV): “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Here, idolatry is depicted as an exchange of the truth of God for a lie, resulting in moral degradation and divine judgment.

2. Spiritual Bondage

Idolatry enslaves individuals in spiritual bondage, leading them away from the true source of freedom and fulfillment found in God alone.

Galatians 4:8-9 (NKJV): “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?” This passage admonishes believers against returning to the bondage of idolatry after coming to know the true God.

Contemporary Relevance

1. Materialism and Consumerism

In today’s society, materialism and consumerism often take precedence over spiritual values, leading people to pursue wealth, possessions, and status as idols.

Matthew 6:24 (NKJV): “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” This warning from Jesus underscores the incompatibility of serving both God and material wealth, highlighting the danger of allowing material possessions to become objects of worship.

2. Idolatry of Self

The idolatry of self, manifested in narcissism, self-centeredness, and the pursuit of personal desires at the expense of others, is prevalent in contemporary culture.

2 Timothy 3:2 (NKJV): “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.” This passage describes the characteristics of people in the last days, including their self-centeredness and disregard for others.


Idolatry, as defined in the Bible, encompasses the worship of false gods, the prioritization of material possessions or desires above God, and the exaltation of self over the Creator. It constitutes a violation of God’s sovereignty, undermines the covenant relationship between God and His people, and incurs divine judgment and spiritual bondage.

In contemporary society, idolatry takes various forms, including materialism, consumerism, and self-centeredness, leading people away from the true worship of God. As believers, it is essential to recognize the dangers of idolatry and to guard our hearts against anything that might take precedence over our devotion to the one true God.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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